Get Fit, Ride Better

Getting into better shape can make you a better rider. Our weight-training exercises are guaranteed to work--and they take just minutes a week.
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Getting into better shape can make you a better rider. Our weight-training exercises are guaranteed to work--and they take just minutes a week.

You take lessons, attend clinics, watch videos. You read books and magazine articles. You ride regularly, keep a riding journal, and use mental imagery to reinforce what you've learned. In other words, you're doing everything possible to be the best rider you can be, right?

Riding can improve your fitness, and fitness can improve your riding. Follow these guidelines to improve your balance and effectiveness as a rider. | Photo by Darrell Dodds

Riding can improve your fitness, and fitness can improve your riding. Follow these guidelines to improve your balance and effectiveness as a rider. | Photo by Darrell Dodds

Nope. If you're not also pursuing physical fitness, you're shortchanging your in-saddle efforts. A fit, well conditioned body sits a horse better, provides clearer, more consistent cues, and is less likely to be injured in the event of a fall. And weight training can transform you into a strong, flexible, more effective rider in just minutes a week.

This article will tell you what you need to know to begin pumping iron today. (It's much easier than you think, and you don't need to go to a gym.) In the story titled "Fitness 101" at the end of this article, we'll also outline the other basics of a well-rounded fitness program--aerobic conditioning, stretching, and proper nutrition. That's because once you find out what weight training can do for you, you're going to want to know how else you can improve your body. Bear in mind, though, that how you look is not the point.

"Personal fitness is all about improving the quality of your life and the level of your performance, regardless of your sport," says Jennifer Sharpe, an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer and herself an avid rider. "The fact that you'll look better, too, is just a bonus."

Why Work Out

Starting and sticking with any new program takes commitment. We're going to make it easy for you--by telling you exactly how weight training will make you a better rider. Once you've seen the list of benefits, you'll be rarin' to go:

  • Improved posture. Horseback riding develops your lower body more than the upper; weight training evens things out. "Upper-body work with free weights, in particular, works wonders," notes Sharpe. "When your shoulder and back muscles are properly developed, good posture comes naturally." No more slumping, slouching, or collapsed hips--especially important in horsemanship classes.
  • More secure seat. "Strong back and abdominal muscles and increased balance make it easier to sit gracefully at the lope, or to stay in position over jumps," says Sharpe. Bonus: No more getting pulled forward by that overeager colt in a snaffle.
  • Better cueing. Weight training makes you more aware of your muscles and how they work. "It teaches you to isolate and use specific muscle groups," explains Sharpe. "Then, when you need to call upon those same muscles for riding, your increased 'muscle savvy' enables you to be more subtle and precise." The result: quieter, more effective legs; softer, more "feeling" hands. Plus, you're better able to use your seat to shorten or lengthen your horse's stride.
  • Enhanced relaxation. Working out dissipates tension--in your muscles and your mind. "And when you're relaxed," notes Sharpe, "you're able to focus fully on your riding and competing, and to use your body more effectively."
  • Improved endurance, discipline. Especially important for busy amateur riders who often find themselves too tired to ride. "Sports psychology tells you that fatigue sabotages effort," says Sharpe. "Strong, fit riders don't tire as easily, and the discipline of working out makes you tougher mentally, too." You'll find yourself sticking to your riding schedule.
  • Injury protection. Strong, elastic muscles, tendons and ligaments are much less prone to injury. "Plus, not only are you less likely to fall," notes Sharpe, "but if you do fall, enhanced coordination will help you to land safely." Bonus: Chronic back pain, a problem for many riders, can be eliminated with judicious weight training.
  • Other benefits. A confidence boost (knowing your body is strong and fit will lessen any riding-related anxieties you may have); enhanced overall health and happiness (you'll sleep better, and find yourself in a cheery mood more often); improved empathy with your horse (you'll understand why, for example, a proper warm-up is so important to him, now that you know first-hand why it's important to you); and, if you have children, the setting of a good example for lifelong health and fitness.

A Leg Up on Lifting

Sound good? Then here's how to begin. These four basic lifts will give you a taste of the benefits of pumping iron. Faithfully executed, they'll give you noticeable improvement in the saddle, especially if you supplement them with that old standby, the basic crunch (modified sit-up). They'll also form a core that you can build on as your enthusiasm for weight training grows.

Do this workout two to three times per week, with at least one day's rest between sessions to allow your muscles to heal and strengthen. Follow the recommendations for beginning weights (often none to start), and perform the movements very slowly. "Going slow forces your muscles to do the work," observes Sharpe. "If you lift quickly, momentum does some of the work, and your ligaments and tendons wind up 'catching' the weight at the end of the move."

In the beginning, do only as many repetitions ("reps") as you can while maintaining the proper form. As soon as your form starts to deteriorate, stop and give yourself a 30-second rest, then begin again for one more set. "Eventually," notes Sharpe, "you'll be able to do all the sets and reps I recommend."

Before each weight training session, warm up with a 5- to 10-minute brisk walk. After your workout, gently stretch each major muscle group, holding each stretch for 20 seconds or more. (You'll find resources for stretching in the story titled "Fast Track to Fitness" at the end of this article.) (NOTE: Before beginning this or any workout program, consult your physician.)

SQUAT:

Strengthens quadriceps (front of thighs), gluteals (buttocks) and, to a lesser extent, abdominals. Enhances your overall base of support in the saddle, and improves your leg control and coordination for effective cueing and security in the saddle. If you ride hunt seat, it will help you hold a two-point position.

A. Stand straight with your feet horse-width apart, toes turned out slightly as in stirrups, knees slightly bent. Position dumbbells on top of shoulders, with your head up and eyes forward.

B. Moving very slowly, lower yourself as if you were going to sit on a chair, keeping your weight on your heels. When you're halfway to the floor, pause, and then slowly come back up, keeping your knees pointed out slightly to stay over your feet. Return to the starting position, keeping your knees slightly bent (don't "lock" your legs).

Weights, reps, sets: Begin without weights, keeping hands on shoulders. When you've mastered the proper form, add 3-pound, and later 5-pound, weights. Build to four sets of 15 repetitions each.

SPLIT LUNGE:

Strengthens quadriceps (front of thighs), gluteals (buttocks), hamstrings (back of thighs) and calves; increases hip joint's range of motion. Improves the strength, control and coordination of your leg cues. This means you can get that drive-from-behind collection and overall body control you need for pleasure events, and the lateral movements (sidepassing an obstacle, pivot turns) you need for trail and horsemanship. Properly conditioned hamstrings also enable you to keep your feet positioned under your center of gravity (in line with your shoulders and hips).

A. Stand straight with your feet together, knees slightly bent, holding a dumbbell in each hand, arms hanging by sides, palms facing in.

B. Take a big step forward with your left foot so that your right heel is lifted and your torso is balanced between your legs, upper body directly over your pelvis. Slowly bend your knees so your left knee is directly over your left ankle, and your right knee approaches the floor; keep your knee, hip and shoulder in a straight line. Bring your left foot back to the starting position, and do reps; then switch leg positions.

Weights, reps, sets: Begin without weights, keeping hands on hips. When you've mastered the proper form, gradually work your way from 3-pound to 10-pound weights. Build to two sets of 10 reps on each leg.

TRICEPS KICKBACK:

Strengthens triceps (back of upper arm) while stabilizing lower body. Improves the control and coordination of your arm movements, enhancing your ability to communicate clearly through the reins.

A. Stand as if you're standing in your stirrups in the saddle: head up and eyes forward, upper body inclined forward from the hips, feet horse-width apart, toes turned out slightly, knees bent, chest open and shoulders back, arms bent at the elbow, holding a dumbbell in each hand at about the waist, palms facing in.

B. Keeping your head, neck and spine in a neutral position, slowly straighten both arms behind you. Pause, then slowly bend your elbows to return to the starting position.

Weights, reps, sets: Begin with 3-pound weights. When you've mastered the proper form, gradually work your way up to 8-pound weights. Build to four sets of 15 reps.

FLY:

Strengthens chest and front shoulders. Helps you achieve upper-body control, which enables you to stay centered and balanced above your horse's center of gravity (thus helping him to balance beneath you). Helps prevent leaning or tipping your body through turns and transitions, or getting ahead of your horse's motion over a jump.

A. Lie on your back on a carpeted floor or mat. Bend your knees, so that your feet are flat on the floor. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, with your hands directly above your chest (not your head), your arms almost straight, elbows slightly bent.

B. Keeping your elbows slightly bent, slowly open your arms, bringing the dumbbells out and down until your elbows almost touch the floor. Pause, then, keeping your shoulders on the floor, slowly close your arms again, as if you're hugging a big tree, and raise the dumbbells back to the starting position.

Weights, reps, sets: Begin with 3-pound weights. When you've mastered the proper form, advance to 5-pound weights. Build to four sets of 15 reps.

This article orginally appeared in the April 2000 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.

Fast Track to Fitness

There's a wealth of information and assistance available to jump-start your fitness program:

Personal trainers. Call the American Council on Exercise at 1-800-825-3636 for the names of ACE-certified trainers in your ZIP code. Or you can ask at your local health club, or check out the fitness classes offered through your local community college. Be sure to ask about credentials. Our featured expert, Jennifer Sharpe, offers clinics and workouts by appointment; contact her at her studio at 242 Inverness Ct., Alameda, CA 94502; (510)-523-4833; jennifer@credible.net.

Equestrian programs. Comprehensive courses like Barbra Schulte's Mentally Tough Riding include fitness components specially tailored for equestrians. Contact Mentally Tough Riding, 2000 South Market St., Suite 219, Brenham, TX 77833; (800) 737-1070 or (409) 277-9344; barbraschulte.com.

Magazines. Check the nearest newsstand for an array of health and fitness publications, including Eating Well, Living Fit, Muscle & Fitness, Men's Health, Shape and Shape Cooks.

Books. Go to your library or bookstore, search for fitness titles at Amazon.com, or check out www.EquineNetworkStore.com's rider fitness books. Some to consider: Better Riding Through Exercise, a Threshold Picture Guide, by Linda Pearce (The Kenilworth Press Limited, 1999); Fit for Riding, by Eckart Meyners (Half Halt Press, Inc., 1992); Fitness for Dummies and Weight Training for Dummies, by Suzanne Schlosberg (IDG Books Worldwide Inc., 1996 and 1997).

Videos. "The Complete Guide to Exercise Videos" catalog (available free by calling 1-800-790-1114) is a comprehensive listing of fitness titles featuring aerobic workouts, weight training, flexibility work, and combinations of the three.

Equipment. Find used equipment (cardio machines of every type, weights, weight benches, etc.) for sale in your local newspaper's classified section, or check at used equipment retail outlets such as Play It Again Sports, where used dumbbells are available for pennies per pound.

Fitness 101

"The beauty of a fitness program," says personal trainer Jennifer Sharpe, "is that you can tailor it to suit both your lifestyle and your riding goals." Sharpe, a Northern California horse enthusiast, helps equestrians of all disciplines develop the strength, coordination, and endurance they need to ride their best. Here she provides some tips for designing a fitness regimen that'll work best for you.

The Basics

Ideally, a fitness program has four components:

1. Aerobic exercise, which places a demand on your cardiorespiratory system by working the large muscles of your legs and buttocks continuously for 20-30 minutes or more at a time. "This is what we typically call the 'cardio' component of a workout," says Sharpe. Examples include brisk walking, running, swimming, cycling, aerobic dancing, or using one of the popular "cardio machines," such as a stationary bicycle, stair climber, treadmill, or rowing or cross-country-skiing device. Ideally performed 2-3 times per week, cardio work strengthens your heart and lungs, burns calories, and builds your endurance.

2. Strength training, which tones and develops muscle tissue by asking it to contract against a resistance (usually a weight). Basic weight-lifting programs can be done at home or at a gym, using free weights (dumbbells and barbells) or machines. "Lifting your own body weight, as in push-ups or abdominal crunches, is also strength training," notes Sharpe. Ideally performed 2-3 times per week, resistance training does more than increase your strength--it also improves your muscle control and coordination, fights fatigue, and revs your metabolism (causing you to burn more calories at rest).

3. Flexibility work, which stretches your various muscle groups through their full range of motion. "Stretching is best done right after your cardio or strength work, when your muscles are thoroughly warmed up," notes Sharpe. There are also entire programs, such as yoga, that focus on flexibility work. In addition to making you more graceful and limber, stretching enhances your ability to relax and helps protect your muscles, tendons, and ligaments by reducing their susceptibility to pulls, tears, and stress injuries.

4. Proper nutrition, which provides your body with just the right amount of the high-quality fuel it needs to perform at its best. Theories on how best to eat abound, but the smartest advice is the simplest: Eat anything you like in moderation, emphasizing foods that are low in saturated fat and high in complex carbohydrates, especially fruits and vegetables. Eat only when you're truly hungry, savor your food, and stop eating when you're satisfied--not full. "It comes down to common sense," says Sharpe. "Basically, it's two cookies instead of five. If you can turn that thinking into a pattern, you've got it made."

Success Tips

The most helpful advice for starting a fitness program is, as the Nike ads say,

just do it.

"Start sqeezing some exercise into your daily routine today, and work the details out as you go along," recommends Sharpe. Also:

Go easy. "Set realistic short-term goals," she adds. "That way, you motivate yourself with success, and avoid injuries and burn-out."

Get help. Especially if you want to lift weights, find a professional to help you design your program, at least. Refer to the story above titled "Fast Track to Fitness" for suggestions on how to find a personal trainer.

Make it fun. Experiment with different forms of exercise until you find something you genuinely enjoy. If you're the sociable type, working out at a gym or attending aerobics classes may be just the ticket. If you're a loner, working out at home with cardio machines and free weights may suit you best. Walking, running and cycling are terrific activities that can be done solo or in groups, as you prefer.

Be flexible--and creative. Avoid rigidity. Take each day as it comes, and if you miss a workout or two, just get back on track as quickly as you can. Being flexible also means being able to substitute one form of exercise for another at need. If rain keeps you from jogging, grab a jumprope. If travel takes you away from your regular gym, use the hotel's gym, jog in place in your room, or use the stairwell. "Exercise your creativity as well as your muscles," says Sharpe.

Keep going. Make a commitment and resolve not to quit. If you must stop for awhile, just start again. If you find you hate your rowing machine, trade it in for a bicycle. If time shortages overwhelm you, cut back on your total workout time--but don't give up. "If you persist," says Sharpe, "you'll get hooked on the benefits fitness provides. Then you'll be set for life."